Category Archives: Education

The Final Exam, Annotated

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I pulled out a few choice sentences that students wrote for my English 10 final exam, which consisted mostly of an essay on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. 

The monster ended up going on a killing spree because he read The Grapes of Wrath and got the wrong idea about human kind.

I have no idea how this particular student conflated Steinbeck’s novel with Milton’s Paradise Lost. The monster in Shelley’s novel had skills, no doubt, but time traveling was not one of them, as far as I can tell.

Then someone else gets killed because everyone thought she had killed everyone that was dying.

Killed to death, as they say, for dying too much. I don’t know who “she” is. Maybe this student holds the author responsible for all the death and destruction. That’s fair.

Here’s a pretty astute craft observation about Mary Shelley’s tone:

So it shows tone because in some sentences it has capitals for all the letters if someone is yelling. If they are just talking it’s normal writing, and if someone is whispering then the letters are smaller than the rest.

Indeed. I had not noticed before that everything the monster says in this novel is in all capital letters. No wonder I felt like I was being yelled at. How did I miss this?

Without teachers there would be no life. We would just be a big sack of potatoes.

I’m so happy to know that I am responsible for my students not becoming sacks of potatoes. Career win.

The monster learning to be good and kind was sort of pointless if he’s just gonna go around strangling people.

Indubitably. All that goodness gone to waste.

Here’s another craft observation, more heart-felt than brainy:

The writer’s choice is to mostly write words that hit your feels and make you think awhile on the life you have.

I know this holds true for me. The first time I read this novel (I was about 35), I got hit in the feels all over. I, too, like this next student, was making powerful personal connections:

My father had not made me very happy in my life. And I felt the same way the monster did at this point. The only difference is that I did not go and kill his whole family.

My connections weren’t about my deadbeat dad. My dad was anything but deadbeat. I was the deadbeat dad, although, truth be told, I wasn’t a dad at the time. I just, in those years, felt more like the mad scientist than the monster; in other words, I was the bad guy.

Here’s some inventive historical context:

Frankenstein is an 1818 novel in a time of pitchforks and torches.

Oh, those were the days. You couldn’t spit in any direction without hitting a pitchfork or a torch. Kind of like coffee shops today, or, in Oregon, pot dispensaries.

And then, apropos not of Shelley, but Galway Kinnell:

This poem is about eating blackberries and I don’t know why anyone would write a poem about that.

Crazy poets.

 

 

 

 

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: June 12, 2018

Please excuse my absence. After 30 poems over the 30 days of April, one needs a little rest. But on top of all that, I’ve been having a transformative experience. On Sunday, May 20, I came down from the mountaintop. My hair turned white and now looks blown back by a great force of energy (see photographic evidence). I have seen the fiery bushes and received the tablets. I will present them now to my people.

I’m only being silly in part (in large part, yes, but nevertheless, in part). I am no Moses. And Pendle Hill is no mountain, despite its prodigious distinction as the intentional Quaker community which, during the 70’s and early 80’s, gave rise to the work of Parker J. Palmer. And he is no god, certainly, but he is (and his work is) exceptional to say the very least. I can think of no single figure in the literature of educational philosophy and practice that has made anywhere near the impact that Palmer has made on my career and on my life, frankly.  And I’ve been able to be with the guy for about 10 days between the retreat in January at the Oblate Center in Texas and the experience this May at Pendle Hill outside Philadelphia as part of my facilitator preparation program for The Center for Courage and Renewal. So I have been dying to write a blog post about this experience and this work, but it has taken me some time to digest and compost and winnow and recover from April’s poetry festival and my time at Pendle Hill.

I have written about this subject before here in the land of Blog. I will try not to repeat myself. We call it “Courage Work” for short. The elevator speech for work that defies elevator speeches is this: we try to live with integrity, and that integrity can only come when who we are interacts with and is in harmony with what we do, when soul meets role. It’s inner work, but it requires community. We do not go it alone. So at the center of the work is the paradox of finding solitude within a community, a community whose sole (soul) responsibility is to honor the stories and inner teachers of each of its members–without judgement, advice, rescue, or fixing of any kind.

The work that I am preparing to do may take any number of forms: sessions that last a few hours or a day, a full-on weekend retreat, or a series of seasonal retreats wherein the same group reconvenes four times over the course of a year. My clients might be teachers, they might be other professionals in the helping professions, they might be neighbors, they might be young people. What began as a program specifically with K-12 teachers in mind has expanded over the last 20 years or so to include school leaders, psychologists, physicians and nurses, elder care professionals, and clergy, but what strikes me about this work is its potential universality: if you are interested in living more consciously, more reflectively, more deeply in touch with who you are and more deeply connected with a community, then this work should be extremely relevant. It’s interesting to me to see if a process geared toward groups of professionals might be tested in new places and with more heterogeneous groups. Neighborhood Courage. Courage for Kids. What transformations might be possible for folks who have traditionally been out of reach of the Center for Courage and Renewal? These possibilities have been racing through my penultimate-year teacher-noggen over this entire nine months. And where will I do this work? Also a mystery. Do I stay on and integrate these principles and practices in my school building and in my district? Do I contract with some other institution familiar with and supportive of Courage and Renewal work? Do I build a retreat center in my backyard?  Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, I’m wrapping up my 29th year as a public high school English teacher. After the seniors have flown the coup, I gave my first remaining final Friday to a group of sophomores. Three to go, today and tomorrow. Friday morning I felt a kind of giddiness. It wasn’t the caffeine. And it wasn’t excitement about sending the rest of my kiddos home for the summer. It wasn’t about my own summer break. Maybe it was about all of these things, but it felt more amorphous–simply a deep, abiding gladness, a sense of gratitude to this place, these kids, these people I work with, and my principal–who retires this year. Super happy for her, and sad for our loss of her. She’s worked really hard and shown some super fine leadership, the kind only possible from a principal who started out with a couple of decades in the classroom as a master teacher. I have huge respect for her and will miss her. In a little goodbye ceremony on Friday there were lots of laughs and a good number of tears, a big bbq, and the festivities continued after school hours at a teacher friend’s house on a big covered deck in the rain.

I’m finishing this blog entry, having graded everything I could grade from my first finals yesterday, while my 7th period sophomores are taking their final essay exam. It’s my most difficult class, only because a number of them are anything but serious about academics, but today, for the most part, they are quiet and working hard on their essay on the novel Frankenstein. One little guy, super frustrating, is playing video games on his phone, claims his final is finished, pulls it out of his bag as proof, and I have to remind him that he wasn’t supposed to work on it at home. Here’s a kid who is absent mostly, does nothing when he’s present, and then miraculously shows up weeks late with work completed. Of course, I have no way of verifying that it’s his work and doubt that it is. Another guy shows up a half an hour late to the final. Also super frustrating, because here is a kid with a good mind and decent skills who believes he can’t think and can’t write. Instead of completing part one of the final the last time we were together, he writes a note to me, sincere, well-written, impassioned, basically begging me to fail him for the semester, saying he’d rather take the class over again to learn what he was supposed to learn during his sophomore year than feel like I allowed him to squeak by. Ironically, he comes into the final at 64%. Some energy toward doing his best work could conceivably bring him to a C. But he’s convinced he can’t write. He’s convinced he’ll never be a good student. His please-fail-me letter belies both of those claims. Now, though, it appears that instead of giving up, he’s giving it the old boy-scout effort. He’s writing and I’m happy. I think I will have to defy his wish for failure.

One of the things my experience with The Center for Courage and Renewal has done for me is to make me question most things I do as a teacher of English Language Arts, except in cases when I can defy a student’s wish to fail. It has changed my work, certainly, made me a more reflective practitioner, made me more authentically human and more authentically ME in my work, but I long for a classroom that somehow transcends evaluating, sorting, fixing, ranking, testing, grading and competing, the way every Courage experience I’ve ever had has transcended these evils. How could the classroom be not those things and equally rigorous and valuable? Could it be, that in my 29th year in the teaching profession, that I have finally come to understand the true purpose of education, or at least, the true purpose of an English Language Arts education, and that maybe I’ve been doing it backwards all along?

Better late than never.

I know I’m being hard on myself. I know that I’ve done good work. For the most part, I’ve done the best I can. But I also know there’s another way, one that through all the years of my long career I’ve been grasping at and reaching for, always just out of reach for a variety of both good and stupid reasons. I would like to lay my finger on it, to experience it, to arrive, at least in brief, before I walk away. I’m on the verge of something.

I can feel it.

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#310: An Elegy for the Essay in English

I read his essay out loud
the way it appeared on the page.
In about five hundred words
the student used two paragraphs,
and, beyond a single period at the end
of the first paragraph, used no
commas, no semi-colons or colons,
no dashes, no quotation marks, and
no more periods, not even at the end
of the second and last paragraph.
Leaving the placeholder from the template
where it was (in place), he titled his essay,
“The Title of Your Essay” and proceeded
to write in response to a prompt in
which he was asked to discuss
three different perspectives on
bilingualism represented by the
three different writers studied
in our unit, a unit about, you guessed it,
bilingualism. I read his paper out loud
and I did it in all seriousness,
deliberately inhibiting any impulse
to laugh out loud, because I really
did want to see if I could somehow
understand what he was trying
to say, whether or not, despite breaking
or ignoring almost every convention,
he might still have known what he
was talking about. I concluded that
he did not, and in the process of
attempting to prove otherwise,
he had killed the essay in English,
killed it in a bad way, killed it in a way
that would question the wisdom
of ever assigning another one again.
Mostly because I began to despair of
ever being able to teach a certain
number of students anything ever
about writing well. They’re too far
behind, and the interventions needed
too radical and beyond anything
we could ever offer them in the way
of meaningful help. And yet. . .

And yet my teacher heart decided
that the boy had written 500 words,
more words than he had ever
written for me before, and there was,
at least, something to celebrate in that.

 

Here’s the reading of the work the student submitted.
 

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#303: The American English Teacher Strategizes for Kids Who Don’t Read

nonreaders

He assigns the pages
and when class convenes
he understands in short order
that only a few kids have bothered
to do the reading.
The age old dilemma of
the high school English teacher:
what can be done if kids won’t read,
not can’t, but won’t or don’t?

Reading everything in class,
either out loud or in silence
will get the reading part
of the job done, but it takes
forever, can be dull, leaves nothing
left over for discussion or
any kind of deeper analysis,
no time for paydirt, for fun.

There’s the ubiquitous
threat of a quiz or a test which
either lights a fire under their seats
or, more likely, just punishes most
everyone and rewards a few.
This English teacher is loath
to purposefully use assessment
as a “gotcha” move, punitive
and ineffectual. So then what?

Yesterday, one of his students made a
suggestion: We’ll do the reading during
one class, then we’ll talk about it
the next! What he was angling for,
essentially, is simply a world without
homework. And the American English teacher
finds himself, often, saying in response
to this proposal: Why the hell not?

Read less, read better.
Read better, like it more.
Like it more, read more.
Read more, do it willingly
as homework in later grades.
This seems like it could be
a formula for success, one that
in his 29th year of teaching,
he has suspected would work
all along, but only ever half-
heartedly employed as a practice.

Meanwhile, the American
English teacher assigns his
students an art project with
some directed text search
for the key developments
of chapters 4 and 5. Are they
able to do the work if they
haven’t read? Only if they
do the work now and work hard.
Are they at a serious advantage
if they actually did the reading
ahead of time? Certainly.
Is it possible that everyone
wins in this situation? Yes.
Is there anything wrong with that?
He doesn’t think so.
The students work diligently
throughout the period
and have good conversations.
But there’s still the nag
in the teacher’s heart that
somehow he’s handling them
with kid gloves. Imagine,
he thinks, handling kids with
kid gloves. O, the horror:
teaching within the tragic
gap between what is possible
and what is a reality.

 

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#294: How Woke?

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Substitute plans laid out in plain sight and handouts ready
that should keep my sophomores honest and hard at work,
I head off this morning to a professional workshop in a district
populated by mostly white kids and staffed by mostly white adults
to have brave conversations about race. Even while the graduation
rate for students of color in our district looks good, and we know
that we are in large part doing a credible job to close the gap,
we know our work is not yet done, that it’s only begun,
that even though my curriculum is less about dead white guys
than it’s ever been, at the freshmen and sophomore levels
including a Native American writer, two Latina writers, a Jewish
American, two Puerto Ricans and one Korean American essayist,
only two dead white women, English and American, and Shakespeare,
we are doing our level best to be inclusive, progressive, to present
a variety of voices and points of view, to offer the lens of great
literature through which to speak to students about equity, about
race, about racism, about oppression, about microagression,
about marginalization, about white guilt, white privilege, allies–
there is no escaping it. And frankly, even in the face of a student
asking me this fall, “is everything we read going to be about race,”
I would not want to go back. There’s no turning back. And I am
fine with that. It is essentially THE American issue, isn’t it?
And yet, I wonder about myself and my colleagues,
once we have checked our assumptions and checked our
multitudinous privileges, and done due diligence to create equal
opportunities for all our students no matter their race, no matter
their class, no matter their gender or gender identification, no
matter their sexual orientation, no matter their creed, how deep
must we go? Knowing we will make mistakes along the way and fail,
how perfect must we strive to be? How much more WOKE can
we get? There’s no end point. There’s no finish line. We keep at
it as long as we go on and it’s exhausting and exhilarating and
exciting and righteous–but heavy, heavy with the weight of
so much justice. As imperfect beings, riddled with our own
contradictions and weaknesses, are we up for the job?

We have to be. We see the alternative at the highest levels,
and we cannot stand for that.

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#284: The American English Teacher Tries Not to Be Afraid While Doing His Job

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Two nights ago I woke up at 3 a.m.
and could not go back to sleep.
It was not a nightmare that woke me.
Just some disturbance in the force
that momentarily stirred me from slumber.
Immediately upon opening my eyes, though,

a waking nightmare:

I was thinking about those kids in Florida,
and I was thinking about those kids in Newtown,
and I was thinking about those kids at Columbine,
and my heart raced, thinking of my own students
in my classroom in a similar situation, or my son
in his teacher’s classroom, in a similar situation,
and I could not sleep.

Even my morning’s meditation, while I worried
that my lack of sleep would find me
dozing off on my cushion, resulted in this
kind of thought-struggle: the focus on the breath,
in and out, in and out, fighting against the thoughts
of making sure both doors into my room were locked
and lights were out, of huddling with students
inside a darkened classroom, of listening
for the signs of safety or of imminent danger,
wondering if I could take the risk to open my door
to let other students in, wondering what I
would do, what I could do, if a shooter
somehow entered my classroom.
These kinds of thoughts would have been
inconceivable to me in my first years
as a teacher in a public school.
Now they are ever-present, hiding in
the shadows of every waking moment.

I walked into my schoolhouse yesterday, a place
that I love, a place I consider another home,
a place that houses over a thousand
human beings that I love, young people
and adults that I consider another family,
as I have done every day since Columbine,
and I try not to be afraid while doing my job.

When I’m there, in that building, doing the work,
it’s easy. I’m immersed. I’m present. These young
people bring me the gifts of their minds and their
personhood, their presences, and I do not feel alone
and I do not feel afraid. It’s when I’m not there
that the fear kicks in: in the middle of the night,
in meditation, at meals, on a walk, and in particular,
reading the internet news, which seems invented
for the sole purpose of cultivating fear.
My only complaint yesterday morning was that
I was exhausted from sleep deprivation,
but I was having fun with my students talking
about Hamlet, and then it began to snow. The district
decided, as a safety precaution, to close down the schoolhouse
two hours early. And as much as I wanted to see
my fourth period 10th graders after an extended absence,
I was happy that I could go home a little early to rest,
and heartened too by the news from Florida:
these kids have had enough of our shit and are fighting
the good fight for the future of our nation and for the
safety of our young people: one and the same fight.
I have more faith in them than I have ever had
in the Republican Party, in any Party, to send us on
the right path, away from harm, away from fear,
toward something like real freedom, a thing that
nobody else seems to recognize any more on either
side of the aisle. Our children are reminding us
about what this word means. They have to be
our heroes now.

They are rising to the occasion.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: February 15, 2018

Photo on 2-15-18 at 7.49 PM

Today I wrapped up three full days of sitting with my senior IB English students, listening to their oral commentaries on a poem by Seamus Heaney and holding discussions with them about Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I sat with almost 25 students, just me and the kid, one at a time, for 20 full minutes a piece. Each time I do this activity, as exhausting as it can be and sometimes frustrating, I am struck nearly dumb with gratitude for the opportunity. It is rare that, as teachers, we have the luxury of time, not to mention the resources that make it possible to hire a substitute so classes can continue in our absence, to sit down with a single student and listen deeply to their learning. It is, likely, the most authentic kind of assessment I’ve ever administered, and one that honors student voices while simultaneously holding them to a rigorous standard. It is intense, intimate, and hopefully an inviting experience. Some students are nervous and do strange things. They talk super fast. Or they stammer a lot. Or certain things they know suddenly slip their minds: What was the name of that character, you know, the main one? Did this detail come before or after that other one? Why, despite the fact that I know this is a work of non-fiction, do I insist on calling it a novel over and over again? Or why did I call this thing a paragraph when I know it to be a stanza? Why did I just call Seamus Heaney Shameless Hainley? How do sentences work again? And then other students speak with an eloquence you’ve never been able to hear in the context of the classroom: That quiet student who likens Virginia Woolf’s speech to a chemistry experiment. A couple of students who are so excited about the material that they seem almost giddy talking about their favorite scenes and favorite ideas: who knew that Woolf’s description of the androgynous mind could have such a profound impact on an 18 year old woman’s consciousness? One student was so meticulous and thoughtful about each sentence she uttered, every one of her thoughts seemed weighty and perfectly formed. And this time through, without exception, every student spoke for 20 minutes. And I listened as deeply as I could and asked open and honest questions to the best of my ability. It was exhausting and glorious.

Two weekends earlier, at the close of one semester and at the opening of the next, I was in San Antonio, Texas for five days with Parker J. Palmer and The Center for Courage and Renewal, learning further about The Courage Way, on a path to becoming a facilitator of professional formation work. Much of that practice is also about deep listening, to self and to others, hearing and listening ourselves into speech, always respectful of silence as a guest and fellow traveler. This seems a little woo woo, doesn’t it. Well, it’s not for everybody, and I remember Parker talking about wanting it, perhaps, to sound more woo woo than it actually is–because anyone with a complete aversion to woo woo would probably not end up receptive to the work, incapable of listening deeply, untrustworthy of the inner teacher, suspicious of the silences in which our greatest wisdom often resides.

Part of my job over the course of this training program is to discover ways of making this kind of work manifest in my professional life and in my community. Over the last few days I felt it working already as I sat with my students, listening to them speak, allowing them to hear themselves, inviting silences from time to time, allowing the inner teacher in each young person to come out to play. The only drawback: it was primarily an academic exercise, and ultimately, it was my job as their teacher and as a teacher in the International Baccalaureate program, to evaluate their performance. Not really the optimum circumstances for true formation work. And always, in the back of my mind, and in light of yesterday’s horrific and all-too-familiar news of yet another mass shooting inside of a school, I knew that many of their hearts were breaking, as was mine. And yet we didn’t speak a word about that. We proceeded with the task at hand. We talked seriously about literature. It wouldn’t have been the time or place to check in with each of them about how they were doing with the news, what their thoughts were on the subject, how they were coping, how they wanted to change the world. I wish there could have been space for that. I wish there could be a space where some caring adult could sit down with every single kid and allow them to speak. We might learn something.

The study of English Language Arts lends itself better perhaps than any other discipline to this, but somehow, in every discipline, I think, we must learn to better balance the academic work we do in schools with the soul work we know is necessary for fostering in our students a move toward deeper integrity, agency and trust. Inner work needs to be on the syllabus and in the curriculum. I think our lives may very well depend upon it: our lives, the lives of our students and children, the life of our nation.

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